Civil society victory for protecting community health

Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, 22 August 2005 - Considering the dangers faced by communities as a result of medical waste incineration and the fact that there has been increasing public opposition to incinerators, groundWork together with the Wildlife and Environment Society of SA (WESSA) and Earthlife Africa commend EnviroServ Waste Management (Pty) Ltd for selecting autoclaving above incineration for their proposed medical waste facility in Shongweni. At a meeting held in Shongweni last month, EnviroServ announced that it was halting its incineration and instead proposing to develop an autoclaving facility to treat medical waste generated in KwaZulu-Natal. EnviroServ said they had chosen autoclaving due to public opposition by communities and environmental activists. EnviroServ stated that they were also motivation for autoclaving due to the fact that a paper released by groundWork in 2002 showed that none of the incinerators run by the KZN department of Health meet the legal requirements for the disposal of medical waste due to governments failure/lack of capacity to monitor and enforce laws governing incineration.

The trend worldwide away from incineration is well documented. Statistics show that in the U.S.A alone, at least 280 incinerator proposals were abandoned between 1985 and 1988 due to public opposition. In Australia, in the past 10-15 years every attempt to site a hazardous waste incinerator has failed, due to public opposition.

This bold move by EnviroServ to consider autoclaving is a sign that companies are noting South African civil society’s real concerns about the health and environmental hazards posed by incinerators (see attachment). This is not the first autoclave to be set up in KwaZulu-Natal. In 2002, Compass Waste Services set up two autoclave facilities at its premises in Westmead, Pinetown.

Autoclaving is a common process which uses steam to sterilise and disinfect contaminated materials. If hospital waste is properly segregated before autoclaving, no harmful emissions will result from the process.

A spokesperson for groundWork, Llewellyn Leonard, has commended industry in shifting towards alternative technology. “We have to make people’s constitutional right to live in a clean and safe environment a priority, and this shift by industry is giving meaning to this constitutional right,” he said.

According to resident in Shongweni, Lilian Develing, “this move will no doubt protect community health since autoclaving reducers health threatening pollutants that would be released into the environment by an incinerator, we therefore comment EnviroServ for their positive move away from polluting incinerators”.

EnviroServ has also announced at a meeting in the Eastern Cape that the company was moving away from using incinerators to dispose of medical wastes. Instead, it plans to establish large autoclaves at regional centres to sterilise collected waste. Morgan Griffths, environmental officer at the WESSA, Eastern Province stated that this move would prevent the contamination of the environment by harmful pollutants such as dioxins, furans, metals and acidic gases which would normally be emitted by an incinerator.

Over 200 studies conducted worldwide have shown links between incineration and serious health impacts, including mortality from various cancers. Research has demonstrated that populations residing near incinerators are exposed to chemicals through inhalation of contaminated air or by the consumption of contaminated agricultural produce from the local area. Some of the emitted chemicals have been proven to cause cancer in humans. It is a proven fact that iincinerators do not make waste disappear; they reduce it to ash and to atmospheric emissions, both of which are potentially hazardous.

“Earthlife Africa (Durban) urges all other provincial governments and the national government to commence to set in place monitoring systems for such technologies”, urges Bryan Ashe, of Earthlife Africa Durban.

It is hoped, therefore, that other industries and provinces will follow the example set by EnviroServ in their consideration of autoclaving.

However, it must be noted that EnviroServ will be retaining its incinerator in Gauteng, which will burn national medical wastes such as body parts.

For more information, please contact:
Llewellyn Leonard: 033 342 5662
Morgan Griffiths: 041 585 9606 / 1157
Lillian Develing: 031 7651134
Bryan Ashe: 031 205 2178 / 082 652 1533


1. Air Pollution

All types of incinerators, no matter how expensive, cause some air pollution. One incinerator can release as many as 190 different chemicals into the air. Many of these chemicals are very dangerous to our health. These chemicals include dioxins and furans, which can cause cancer.

There are many ways to reduce the amount of pollution coming out of incinerators, but there is no way to stop all the pollution.

2. Incineration is dangerous to human health

Studies have shown that incinerator workers and people who live near to incinerator have more health problems. Many highly toxic substances emitted from waste incinerators (including dioxins, furans, cadmium, lead and mercury) are known to disrupt the body’s hormonal (endocrine), immune and reproductive systems as well as cause cancers. These chemicals can enter our bodies when we breathe in polluted air, or when we eat food that has been contaminated. For example: these chemicals can settle on grass, which is eaten by cows. When we drink the cows’ milk or eat beef, these chemicals enter our bodies.

3.Incinerators produce dangerous ash

Fly ash, collected by the incinerator’s air filter system, and bottom ash collected in the furnace are more toxic then the original waste which went into the incinerator. This is because new substances such as dioxins, furans and heavy metals are created during the process of incinerating waste. Thus incinerator ash must be safely disposed of on a hazardous landfill site.

4. Incineration does not encourage waste reduction

Incinerators require a minimum amount of waste to be delivered each day in order to remain operational. This is a deterrent to waste minimisation.

5. Incinerators do not make economic sense

Incinerators are extremely expensive to install and run. Incinerators provide little employment opportunities for the large capital investment needed. Much local public money leaves the community and is paid into the hands of large private sector and or multi-national companies to operate the incinerators. In contrast with incineration, separating and recycling waste provide opportunities for employment of local people, and money so spent remains in the community

6. Most incinerators are situated in poor areas

In SA and many other countries incinerators are located in low income communities or communities of colour. This is because incinerators are polluting. This is called environmental racism.